The Episcopal Doctrine of Worship

We tend not to think of worship from a doctrinal angle but we cannot avoid doing so for the basic fact that doctrine refers to a teaching, or an assemblage of beliefs, and Anglican worship is conducted weekly based upon a particular understanding of the manner in which God ought to be revered, adored, shown to be utterly worthy. Should we approach God in worship in any conceivable manner? Does God care how He is approached, addressed, and worshiped? Does New Testament grace warrant license for carelessness in our worship of God? Solomon, humbly and solemnly, writes:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:1, 2 NRSV)
Notice what the Holy Spirit is communicating to us through Solomon. "Guard your steps" has reference to one's feet and the taking off of the sandals when entering the Temple (Exod. 3:5; Josh. 5:15). So, entering the presence of God properly matters, and we can assume that the manner in which we approach the place where we worship is significant -- not merely in appropriate dress but in the state of our hearts. The phrase "guard your steps" is, lit., to "keep the foot," and refers to walking "the right way, the way of reverence and obedience (Psalm 119:32; Psalm 119:101)." (link)

The teacher then instructs us to draw close during worship to listen rather than to "offer the sacrifice of fools." (cf. 1 Sam. 15:22) More than an offering, or a "sacrifice," God desires a heart that longs to listen, learn, love and obey. Such a one, eager to listen rather than to speak, is not rash with one's words and, thus, will avoid allowing one's heart to be quick to utter whatever thought comes into his or her mind before the presence of God. A humble follower of Christ remembers that God is in heaven, and hence heavenly, and that he or she is on earth and, hence, earthly. This person will watch his or her lips, being careful with one's words, letting them be few in comparison to the fool who is careless in the presence of an Almighty God.

In my years of being in the evangelical movement, I have heard many prayers and many statements from the pulpit uttered to which I could in no sense say, "Amen!" I have yet, however, to read a statement from the Book of Common Prayer to which I could not say the "Amen!" with hearty approval. This conclusion derives from careful attention to how we are to address God; and this is why the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy and other instructions, are carefully stated, because we understand that a just, holy and righteous God is being addressed, invoked and worshiped, and should be approached with care, respect, and dignity.

Praying set forms of prayers read aloud to God is an ancient Jewish practice. The book of Psalms is a collection of prayers and songs prayed and sung to the God of Israel -- it is, if you will, the Book of Common Prayer for the ancient Jewish people. The tradition of reading written prayers was carried over from the Jewish tradition to the Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian traditions in the first century. From the book of Acts we read: "They [converts to faith in Christ Jesus] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and [ταῖς προσευχαῖς] the prayers." (Acts 2:42) What is the intended meaning of "the prayers"?


The phrase "the prayers" is the literal Greek form presented in the text, with the article and plural form (ASV, CEB, CJB, ESV, HCSB, MEV, NABRE, NRSV, OJB, RSV, YLT; some suggest "prayers" AMP, KJV, LEB, NKJV, Wycliffe), not "prayer," singular (GWT, ISV, NASB, NET, NIV, NLT, WEB), and not "praying" (NCV, The Voice; "prayed together" CEV). The reference in Acts is to pre-written prayers read aloud during the daily office -- morning prayer (Acts 2:1, 15), noontime prayer (Acts 10:9), and evening prayer (Acts 3:1; 10:1-3, 30). These early believers not only prayed the divine hours, as such is named by Anglicans, but also extemporaneously (or from the heart and not from a text) as do all other Anglicans. But in formal worship, and for the set hours of the day, what is prepared for us are well thought-out prayers that are biblical, Christ-centered, appropriate theologically for worship, for petition, and for communicating with God in Jesus Christ through the indwelling and guiding Holy Spirit.

In The Episcopal Church, worship is primary, as our "common" worship forms our unity. Episcopalians honor the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, which refers to prayer forming belief. While confessional churches demonstrate their beliefs via elaborate Confessions, creedal churches like The Episcopal Church demonstrate their beliefs via worship -- prayers, liturgical rites, and instructions contained in the Book of Common Prayer. If you want to know what an Episcopalian believes then listen to an Episcopalian pray. Worship informs the theology of the Anglican.

The word "common" in the title of the prayer book refers to a commonality, an agreement among a generality of people, so that all people are united as one when praying to God in and through Christ. When England was still divided religiously, between Roman Catholic and Protestant advocates, Henry VIII called, in 1544, for one religious book of worship to be constructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, since, by the Act of Supremacy in 1534, the Church of England was no longer holden to the Roman See: the King of England was Head of the Church of England, not the Pope of Rome, and thus was required a new service book for Protestant worship. This new book would not be a completely new creation, however, since many forms of the Roman worship were orthodox. Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer is one of the most artful works of literature in the English language.

J.H. Benton notes that those who know it best love it most. (link) Anglican-Arminian evangelist John Wesley states: "I believe there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England." (link) Benton quotes an Anglican priest regarding the impact of the English prayer book to the effect:
As the earth's shadow has kept sweeping slowly round the globe, under the two advancing lines of twilight and dawn, wherever the English tongue is spoken, the daily sacrifice of our morning and evening prayer has "bowed down successive crowds of worshippers upon their knees;" so that, perhaps, there has not been an hour of day or night, since that month, in the second year of Edward's reign, when, from some high temple, or lowly chapel, or family group, or chamber of sickness, or dying bed, or closet whose door was shut, these immortal confessions and supplications and praises have not been ascending! (link)
Arminian Hugo Grotius published wide his affection for the Church of England and its worship of God. Henry Newton notes of Grotius to John Clerc: "Certainly, my Lord, I am persuaded that he doth unfeignedly and highly love and reverence your person and proceedings. Body and soul he professeth himself to be for the Church of England, and gives this judgment of it, that it is the likeliest to last of any church this day in being."1 Grotius himself instructs the Arminians who were exiled from Holland by the Calvinists to seek holy orders from the Church of England,2 as well as encourages his wife, upon his death, to join the Church of England, "in which church he wished her to live," which advice she happily obeyed.3

Admiration for the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer and liturgical worship is not, however, a fascination relegated to the past. A younger generation is discovering the beauty of worship in the ancient early Church tradition of the third and fourth centuries of the Medieval perspective. The Christian Broadcast Network featured this youth-driven reality in its piece: "Anglican Fever: Youth Flock to New Denomination." The conservative evangelical magazine Christianity Today also featured an article entitled "The Book of Common Prayer is Still a Big Deal." Once the fads of the youth-oriented "praise and worship" and "hipster" movements have run their courses -- and such was doomed from its inception because of the very temporary and transient nature of fads -- young people will turn toward a tradition with substance, ancient roots, with a stable future. Some are finding all three motifs in the Anglican tradition and the worship found in the Book of Common Prayer.

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1 "Testimonies concerning Hugo Grotius: II. Henry Newton to John Clerc," in Hugo Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Religion, ed. John Clarke (Edinburgh: Thomas Turnbull, 1819), 303.

2 Ibid., 301.

3 Ibid., 303-04.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.